After really impressing me in a big way a few years back in Smashed (which I contend should have gotten her an Academy Award nomination), Mary Elizabeth Winstead again turns in a great performance that might fly under the radar. This time, it’s for actor turned director Chris Messina in his filmmaking debut Alex of Venice, which I first saw back at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The movie itself is almost mellow to a fault, but it’s the sort of indie flick that offers you the opportunity to spend some time with interesting characters as they somewhat quietly go about their day to day lives. There are big plot points in the film, for sure, but spending time with the cast is paramount and the main pleasure to be found here. Messina shows off the ability to more than competently direct, while Winstead is terrific and the supporting cast (particularly Don Johnson) makes the most of what they’re given to do. I’m not particularly in love with the screenplay here, but the cast and just the overall mood of the movie worked enough for me that I can recommend it to you all without hesitancy. Alex of Venice is by no means a perfect film, but it’s undoubtedly a good enough one to be worth seeing now that it’s finally hitting theaters. You won’t be blown away, I’m sure of that, but you’ll likely enjoy it, particularly in terms of Winstead’s impressive work. I liked her a lot last year at Tribeca, and I feel exactly the same way now in the first half of 2015, so the film gets a thumbs up from me, even if it’s not an overt rave.
As is usually the case in an indie like this one, we meet our title character Alex (Winstead) at a rather major turning point in her life. She’s a workaholic environmental lawyer beginning a big case against a developer (Derek Luke) who is looking to build a spa on a potentially protected part of nature in the area. At the same time, her stay at home husband George (Messina) has decided that he can no longer just be a soccer dad to their preteen son Dakota (Skylar Gaertner), so he opts to split. He was also helping to take care of Alex’s aging actor father Roger (Johnson), who’s beginning to get a little forgetful. Alex is completely overwhelmed by real life and the changes that are afoot, as she’s always just been focused on work, so Roger calls in his free-spirited daughter/Alex’s sister Lily (Katie Nehra) to assist Alex. From there, Alex tries to balance her family, her career, and the possibility of having to start over again in the love department, initially with iffy results and unlikely partners. Nothing here is particularly surprising, but watching it all unfold is fairly enjoyable, mostly due to the cast and the way they’re able to realistically interact with each other.
Though I think she was definitely better in Smashed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great here, giving one of her very best performances to date. She hits all of the right notes with this character, never going overboard in any one particular direction. Winstead doesn’t always get parts this juicy to dig in and play, so I’m thrilled that she has this one, and she really knocks it out of the park. She’s clearly the star, with everyone else just in her orbit. The other cast members are all fine, but Don Johnson is really the other memorable one. He takes a character that you think you have all figured out early on in the flick and does something very interesting with him. I won’t spoil it, but Johnson hasn’t been this good in a very long time. Chris Messina gives himself a fairly undemanding role, while the likes of Skylar Gaertner, Derek Luke, and Katie Nehra are content to just do their parts and be done with it, though Luke is certainly solid enough and none of them disappoint at all. Other cast members include Jennifer Jason Leigh (in basically a cameo), Will McCormack, Timm Sharp, and a few others, but Johnson is the only one who even comes close to Winstead. She’s just above and beyond here.
Chris Messina chose a very interesting project for his directorial debut. It’s not what you’d normally expect an actor to tackle his first time out, but he exudes confidence from behind the camera. Had he been working from a slightly more polished script, this might have been something special. Co-star Nehra is one of the scribes, along with Jessica Goldberg and Justin Shilton, and while they’re screenplay has some solid moments, it feels like something that was a bit too broadly sketched out. The performances save this movie, so while the cast deserves a lot of credit for that, Messina also does as well, since he was able to get those performances out of them. Alex of Venice is evidence that he should keep this up and continue to hone his craft.
Basically, Alex of Venice is a solid yet slightly forgettable little flick here in the first half of 2015. I wouldn’t expect it really to go too far, but it features Winstead doing something special and announces Messina as a filmmaker to watch, so that’s certainly enough to get my recommendation. As long as your expectations for this one aren’t sky high, I’d expect that Alex of Venice will be an acceptable cinematic experience.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!